Taiwan's amateur enviro-spies

To catch polluters, the government is turning to volunteers with digital cameras

Portuguese sailors in the 15th century named Taiwain "Formosa," meaning "beautiful island." But on most days, it's hard to even see the mountainous island through the shroud of smog. So the government is fighting back, tightening environmental rules, and enlisting an army of citizen sleuths to spy on Taiwan's biggest polluters.

These environmental spies are armed with binoculars, notepads, and digital cameras, and have been tasked with snooping around small businesses and big corporations alike to make sure they're putting their toxins and trash in the right place.

Deputizing volunteers to be enviro-snoops is just the latest effort by Taiwan to curb the pollution that has accompanied its rapid development over the past 50 years. It's also indicative of an emerging civic activism in this young democracy.

Taiwan's economic path from heavy industry to high tech has taken a toll on the nation's air and water quality. While the business community has had five years to comply with tougher waste disposal and recycling rules, companies continue to circumvent the law by dumping waste illegally.

Reports of toxic waste found in rivers and buried near residential areas have stretched environmental officers so thin that they are struggling to enforce the island's environmental laws. One high-profile case revealed that toxic chemicals were being secretly dumped in Taoyuan County's Lungtan Township, where groundwater pollution has led to serious illness among local residents. Elsewhere, in Tainan, a factory that recycles toxic ash collected from steelmakers was found to be contaminating nearby chicken and duck farms.

The snooper scheme was introduced this year by Taiwan's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to serve as an early warning system. Industrial waste is expected to hit 19.4 million tons next year, up from 18 million tons in 2001. Despite stringent rules, as much as 25 percent of the waste will not be disposed of or properly treated because of a lack of waste management companies here, say environmentalists.

"The situation is getting worse, as not many people care about the environment for our future generations," says Shi Xing-zhong, founding member of the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union, a nongovernmental body. "A balance has to be found between economic growth and protecting where we live," he says.

Last December, the EPA first recruited several retired public servants, military personnel, and public school teachers for the first environmental guard in the country. The new guard tipped off the authorities to several cases of illegal dumping, so the EPA went on a recruiting drive, swelling the ranks to about 70 members.

Su Rong-lu, a volunteer from the Qie Ding fishing village nestled on the banks of the Erhjen River in southern Taiwan, patrols the waters in his small boat. The fisherman and his neighbors have been forced to fish the deep sea waters 20 miles out because of the accumulation of harmful industrial, agricultural, and household waste dumped near the banks of the river. "I'm more than just a volunteer," says Mr. Su. "The river was, and still is, my way of life and it's my duty to clean it up. Otherwise there will be nothing left in years to come."

As he guides the small wooden outboard boat up river, the water coming from a large tributary off the main river is jet black and heavy with the stench of sewage. Less than 20 percent of household water going into the river is treated, says Kenny Horng, a professor of occupational health and safety at Chang Jung Christian University in Tainan. He says the problem has been exasperated by an industrial park upstream that may be discharging illegal amounts of pollutants.

A recent typhoon unmasked the devastating legacy of Taiwan's rapid economic rise in the 1980s. Parts of the riverbank have been washed away, revealing metal computer boards and plates stacked 10-feet high that should have been recycled but were discarded along the Erhjen. .

A study by Professor Horng found that the levels of copper, lead, and zinc are 5,400 times the legal limit in parts of the river. "Fish and oysters are worst affected so the pollutants have made their way into the food chain," says Horng, who runs his own river restoration project. He counts 150 locals and students among his squad.

Professor Horng's group and the EPA volunteers have been criticized by some businessmen who say they have little understanding about the rules and regulations. "These volunteers have a tendency to report everything they see, which can disrupt business operations," says a chemical factory owner near Taoyuan.

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